SXSW: What Austin is all about 

Queen Mary Law with a Year Abroad student, Aleksandra Goluchowska, spent a year abroad at the University of Texas at Austin. Aleksandra reviews how the Turing Scheme’s grant helped them to truly embrace all that Austin has to offer.

Austin, Texas lives and breathes live music. Even upon landing, you’re greeted by painted guitar sculptures atop the luggage carousel at the Austin-Bergstrom airport. This creative soul of the city was one of the things that drew me to choosing Austin as my exchange destination and before getting here I could not wait to participate in its numerous music, film, and art festivals. One of the highlights of my year-long stay in Austin has been taking part in the SXSW (South By Southwest) festival.

What is SXSW?

If you have not heard of it already, SXSW is a world-renowned collection of festivals and conferences celebrating the convergence of tech, music, and film. It takes place over 10 days in March and includes concerts, film screenings, expos, talks, conferences, art exhibitions and many more happening throughout the whole city of Austin at all times of the day and night. It attracts thousands of visitors and industry-leaders and is a perfect blend of education, innovation, and entertainment. It also provides variety, as it gives you a chance to watch performances of big names such as Lizzo, Dolly Parton, Nicolas Cage or Sandra Bullock, as well as discover new artists – musicians, filmmakers, comedians etc. from all over the world.

How can you get involved?

SXSW sounds like a blast. The problem is, a badge to SXSW costs around $1,300 to $2,000, and purchasing a badge for the whole festival is really the only way to participate. As an Austin resident you can buy a wristband for $200 which gives you low priority access to either music or film events depending on what wristband you choose, but it only lets you enter concerts or screenings after everyone with a badge got into the venue so it requires a lot of waiting around before a likely disappointment of a venue reaching capacity before you can get inside so I would not recommend this option. As a student, you can get a sizeable discount, getting you a badge for $600-$900, but for many of us on a student budget, that is still a little bit too much. Thankfully, SXSW gives you a chance to volunteer your time in exchange for a festival badge.

How to be a volunteer?

SXSW with their 35 years of expertise have a very well organised volunteer network. You just go through their website, which carefully explains the process, you sign up, go through quick training and you’re in. If you agree to work for 48 hours you can receive either a Film, Music or Interactive (mainly tech and comedy) badge, which will give you primary access to the respective track of the festival and secondary access to all other events. If you agree to work for 62, you will receive a Platinum Badge, which will give you primary access to all festival events. There are many volunteer positions to choose from in many venues across the city so you can always find something you would like to do, from setting up venues to helping festivalgoers find their way around. If you’re worried about missing the festival as you’re working, fret not, as not only are supervisors quite accommodating if you have to take a longer break to see this one talk you really can’t miss, but also SXSW runs an education-focused festival – SXSW EDU the week preceding the main event and you can book most of your shifts then to enjoy as much of SXSW as possible.

Why is it worth it?

First of all, volunteers are the backbone of SXSW. If it wasn’t for them, the festival could not happen. The feeling that you are a part of such an amazing event is rewarding in itself. And the organizers don’t let you forget that. At every film screening I went to, before the film was played a short, animated video thanking volunteers for their hard work was played, prompting everybody in the audience to clap. You also get a behind the scenes view of what it takes to run such an event all while meeting lots of new people and having fun. I got to hear stories from Austinites that have been volunteering at SXSW for years.

Once your volunteering experience is over, you get to participate in all that SXSW has to offer and it really has a lot to offer. During the festival, the whole city comes alive. You hear music, see art and entertainment at every corner. You get to really see what Austin is all about. And like with any festival, you might come to see the big-name headliner but end up falling in love with a band or a film you just stumbled upon, making memories you will cherish forever. I believe that attending SXSW, whether as a volunteer or a regular festivalgoer is one of the best things you could do if you end up choosing Austin as your exchange destination.

Turing Scheme

My experience at SXSW would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the grant I received as part of the Turing Scheme. The financial comfort that the grant brought really allowed me to make the most of opportunities like this and to feel confident in being able to devote two weeks of my exchange to volunteering my time and immersing myself in the celebration of film, music, tech, art, and entertainment, that SXSW brings to Austin every year.


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